We continue our mission to review every James Bond film ever released as we make our way towards the release of Skyfall in October…
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things and I realised that Moonraker actually kinda sucks.
Ok. Look. Before we get all hoity-toity, before we get on our high horses, before we come on all oh-look-at-me-I’m-like-Mark-Kermode-and-I’m-really-into-arty-films-in-black-and-white-where-everyone-is-foreign-and-depressed-and-nobody-talks-and-everything, before we do that – let’s play fair. Let’s acknowledge that Moonraker was a very successful film, it was the highest grossing Bond film until GoldenEye, it made over 200 million dollars and was the box office number 1 in the USA for a month. It put a lot of bums on a lot of seats and those bums stayed put and the owners enjoyed the film.
Additionally, let us acknowledge that tastes change. Just maybe in 30 years time we’ll look back at Casino Royale and wonder why the po-faced blonde guy doesn’t cheer up.
But let’s also acknowledge that Moonraker isn’t a very good film. Blatantly cashing in on the sci-fi, space and lasers bandwagon of the late ‘70s it tries to be bigger, better, Bondier than ever before. But it just ends up being silly.
Directed by Lewis Gilbert and penned by Christopher Wood (whose other credits include the Confessions… sex comedy series) the plot has a familiar ring to it. Things kick off when a piece of expensive hardware (in this case a space shuttle) is mysteriously stolen. It’s actually hijacked by a couple of shifty looking guys in matching leather jackets who look liked they’ve strayed off the set of The Sweeney and think they’re half-inching a Capri, but I digress. Bond investigates, goes to a lot of exotic places and eventually teams up with a beautiful agent (Lois Chiles) to battle a megalomaniac (Michael Lonsdale) who wants to destroy the world. Well, destroy almost everyone in the world and replace them with a master race, consisting of the cast from Fame. Jaws (Richard Kiel) pops up and the finale involves a big old battle in the villain’s lair. In space.
Superficially that’s a remake of Gilbert and Wood’s previous outing The Spy Who Loved Me. Actually, it’s more like a sequel, where quality is substituted for quantity; Pirates of the Caribbean style. In The Spy Who Loved Me the action was plot driven, it was justified, whereas Moonraker essentially consists of series of set piece action sequences. There’s just a bit of flimsy exposition in between in order to get Bond to the next scenic location.
The film’s fatal flaw, however, is its blatant playing-it-all-for-laughs tone. Certainly that urge to turn to the audience and be juvenile and self-mocking has always been there in the Moore films. It would lurk in the shadows, wait until you’d got comfortable then jump out to spoil the moment and lower the IMDB rating. Did anyone like the slide-whistle accompanying the car jump in The Man With The Golden Gun? Usually it was kept in check, but in Moonraker that urge is not just given into, it’s indulged. This isn’t so much tongue in cheek as tongue being stuck out to anyone who ever took Bond seriously in the first place. It wouldn’t be so bad of course if it was actually funny – but rest assured dear Bond fan, no sides will be split here, no TENA Lady will be dampened. What we end up with is a kind of James Bond meets Carry On meets The Chuckle Brothers. A PG certificate ‘Confessions of a Secret Agent’ if you will.
Poor old Jaws is the character who comes off the worst. He’s reduced to being a living and breathing Loony Tunes character, Wile E Coyote in Simon Cowell trousers and braces. Then there’s the gondola scene. The gondola-that-converts-into-a-hovercraft-and-is-driven-around-St-Marks-square-for-comic-effect scene. With a pigeon. A pigeon that does a double-take. As Big Sean would say, shocking.
Apparently it was motivated by letters sent to Lewis Gilbert from children. Which begs two questions: 1. What kind of eight year old goes to a film and then pens a letter to the director suggesting a radical new direction for a character? And 2. Why the hell is he listening to kids? The answer to the latter perhaps explains everything.
You see, Moonraker was essentially aimed at kids. That Spielberg generation who flocked to the cinema to see Star Wars and Close Encounters and the Black Hole and anything else with an exploding star system in it or a warp drive. Their money was a good as anyone’s back then and Bond wanted a piece of that action. To that end the initial plan of filming For Your Eyes Only was postponed and the studio went with the more commercially sound option.
The infamous space-bound laser battle, isn’t, in terms of late ‘70s special effects, that bad. The lasers make those laser sounds (don’t know why, laser pens you get on your key-ring don’t do that) and the whole thing distinctly resembles the protracted underwater fight from Thunderball. But in space, obviously. It just really has no place in a Bond film.
There are gags for the dads as well of course. So enter the love interest Holly (snigger, snigger) Goodhead. Whether she’s was aptly named or not we never find out and I suspect neither did Bond because there is zero chemistry between them. When they do kiss it’s about as sexual as a dull Sunday afternoon filling out your tax return. Corinne Dufour (Cerinne Cléry) as the secondary Bond girl is a lot more fun. It’s a pity she meets such an unpleasant end: a startlingly brutal killing, savaged to death by a pair of dobermans. It’s chilling and is one of the few really good scenes in the movie.
All that said, the film isn’t without its other good points. As expected with such a big budget and Ken Adam and John Barry on board it looks and sounds great. Roger Moore is extremely comfortable as Bond and the more humorous tone suits him down to the ground.
There’s really nothing wrong with Michael Lonsdale as the villain Hugo Drax either. Whilst he adds nothing new to the world of megalomania, he does have a likeable world weariness and is surely the wittiest villain that Bond has ever encountered: “It’s time to put you out of my misery Mr Bond”. Richard Kiel also shows that he still has the power to disturb if you let him, menacing his way down a Rio alleyway dressed as a giant clown.
Incidentally, just on a throwing it out there note, at one point in the film Drax is on the phone trying to arrange a replacement for his dead henchman Charr (strangely credited as Chang). He’s presumably talking to someone in HR, let’s call her Sandra, who reckons she can get Jaws onto the payroll. It begs the question of how these villains go about their recruitment? They always have such loyal staff. I’d like to think they’re mainly temps or gap year students. Where are these jobs advertised?
Ah well. I loved Moonraker as a kid, but I suppose we all have to grow up. We have to put away those childish things. Even Bond…although, as some of the subsequent films were to prove, his adolescent years were more problematic than most.